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Hilal English

Divide and Conquer: The Dangerous Surge of Anti-Muslim Rhetoric in Indian Politics

May 2024

As political rhetoric grows louder, so does the shadow of discrimination, leaving India's religious harmony hanging by a thread.


On April 22, 2024, more than 2,200 concerned Indians demanded the Election Commission to initiate action against Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his hate-filled remarks against Muslims in which he dubbed them as “infiltrators” and “those with more children.” The letter came a day after Modi’s speech in Rajasthan’s tribal-majority Bhanswara area where he also accused the opposition Congress of planning to snatch ‘mangalsutras’ (an ornament symbolizing marriage and Indian wedding chain), land, and wealth from Hindus to distribute them among Muslims. The concerned citizens called Modi's remarks a "dangerous and a direct attack on Muslims of India."
This letter, widely reported by the Indian and foreign media, may stand as an exception, but the hate-filled speeches of Modi and other top leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remain a norm in the highly polarized and divisive Indian politics. Indeed, the BJP, eyeing a third straight term in the government, owes the meteoric rise of Hindutva politics and the building of the Modi cult overwhelmingly to its anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan rhetoric. 
This politics of hate speech always hits a peak during the election season, as has been witnessed again during 2024. From celebrating the 1992 demolishing of 16th century Babri Mosque and the building of a Hindu temple in its place to the promises of pulling down thousands of more worship places belonging to the Muslims, the BJP is again going all out to play its "Hindu card" in an attempt to secure a record number of seats in this year's general elections.
Among an array of allegations, the one that has caught the Hindu fundamentalist mind the most is the so-called concept of ‘love jihad.’ Uttar Pradesh (UP) Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, remains at the forefront in peddling this conspiracy theory, which falsely claims that Muslim men are luring Hindu women into marriage on false pretenses in an attempt to convert them to Islam and help bring about Muslim dominance in India.
But the hate speech against Muslims should not be seen just as an election-time activity. It is the cornerstone of the BJP politics, which banks on galvanizing its support base by targeting and victimizing Muslims.
India Hate Lab
A first-of-its-kind, detailed 47-page report, issued in February 2024 by a Washington D.C.-based research group, India Hate Lab (IHL), provides details of the gravity of hate speech challenge in India on the basis of 2023 data of such incidents against India's 250 million plus minorities, especially Muslims. The report, prepared by a team of journalists, academicians, and researchers, is seen as path-breaking because of its objectivity and factuality in documenting the hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories targeting religious minorities, both in the digital and offline spaces.
The document quotes and analyzes verified instances of in-person hate speech events in India, including at political rallies, religious parades, and demonstrations. According to the report, such gatherings are organized sometimes in the context of elections and religious festivals and sometimes “with the objective of harassing Muslims.”


The IHL report documented 668 hate speech incidents targeting Muslims in 2023. The first half of 2023 witnessed 255 such cases, while the number jumped by 62 percent to 413 in the second half. The report said that 498 hate-speech, or 75 percent events took place in the BJP-ruled states, union territories, and the capital, New Delhi.


668 Hate Speech Incidents
The IHL report documented 668 hate speech incidents targeting Muslims in 2023. The first half of 2023 witnessed 255 such cases, while the number jumped by 62 percent to 413 in the second half. The report said that 498 hate-speech, or 75 percent events took place in the BJP-ruled states, union territories, and the capital, New Delhi.
Among the top eight states with the most hate speech events, six were ruled by the BJP all through the year, while the other two states held legislative elections in 2023 and were ruled by the BJP for part of the year.
The report said that 36 percent, or 239 cases, included a direct call of violence against Muslims, and 77 percent of these dangerous speeches were delivered in states and territories ruled/governed by the BJP.
“The Vishva Hindu Parishad-Bajrang Dal, affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was responsible for 216 (32 percent) events, making it the top organizer of hate speech events. Overall, 307 (46 percent) of hate speech events were organized by entities that are part of the broader Sangh Parivar (RSS family),” according to the report.


TOP 10 ORGANIZERS OF HATE SPEECH EVENTS

HATE SPEECH EVENTS BY PARTY IN POWER


The BJP is part of the family of RSS–a paramilitary organization of the far-right Hindus.
“Our report has found rapid growth of new Hindu nationalist groups and actors engaging in hate speech,” the IHL said. “BJP leaders were involved in delivering hate speeches at 100 (15 percent) of the events. BJP legislator, T. Raja Singh, spoke at 23 events, including 14 dangerous speeches with calls to violence against Muslims.”
According to the report, in the BJP-ruled states, around 11 percent of hate speech incidents featured the ruling party's leaders, whereas in non-BJP-ruled states, this figure rose to 28 percent. "Maharashtra (118), Uttar Pradesh (104), and Madhya Pradesh (65) ranked top among states for hate speech... These three BJP-ruled states collectively accounted for 43 percent of the total hate speech events recorded."


“Out of 193 events that took place between October 7 (the day Hamas attacked Israel and the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza) and December 31, 2023, 41 (21 percent) mentioned the Israel-Gaza war to stoke hatred towards Indian Muslims.”


he report said that hate speech peaked between August and November, coinciding with the VHP-Bajrang Dal Shaurya Jagran rallies and state legislative elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Chhattisgarh. “Approximately 318 hate speech events, or 48 percent of the total, took place during this period.”
Conspiracy Theories
Interestingly, 420 (63 percent) percent hate-speech incidents included references to conspiracy theories, primarily involving love jihad, land jihad, halal jihad, and population jihad. Almost 169 (25 percent), incidents featured speeches calling for targeting Muslim places of worship.
“Out of 193 events that took place between October 7 (the day Hamas attacked Israel and the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza) and December 31, 2023, 41 (21 percent) mentioned the Israel-Gaza war to stoke hatred towards Indian Muslims.”
According to the report, the hardline Hindu religious leaders delivered hate speeches at 93 or 14 percent of such events.
“Rohingya refugees were targeted in speeches at 38 (4 percent) of the events.”
Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana, which conducted legislative elections in 2023, witnessed 176, or 26 percent, of such events. Almost 28 percent, or 186 hate-speech incidents, occurred in states that are slated for elections in 2024. The majority of them were held in Maharashtra.
The report declared far-right Hindu influencer Kajal Hindustani, chief of Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad (AHP) Pravin Togadia, and chief of Hindu Rashtra Sena, Dhananjay Desai as the top three sources of hate speech. Among the BJP ranks, Raja Singh, Pravin Togadia, and Kajal Hindustani are the top three sources of dangerous speech, the report added.
Targeting Muslims
The IHL report said that the majority of the hate speeches targeted India's religious minorities, in particular Muslims. "Social media, and the media in general, play a key role in the amplification and dissemination of hate speech in India."
The report said that the hate speech “might have a dramatic effect on social harmony, individual well-being, and the democratic fabric… with a disproportionate impact on minorities and marginalized communities.”
“Hate speech has historically been understood to be an important causal factor in driving severe atrocities towards communities, including massacres and genocides. It plays a critical role in incubating hatred towards a group, effectively building in-group solidarity and demonizing out-groups, while also acting as a means of intimidation. Collective hatred for the out-group by targeted dehumanization may effectively legitimize violence towards them by portraying them as an aggressive threat.”
The report rightly points out that hate speech must thus be understood as a sophisticated and well-coordinated strategy that deploys language as a symbolic justification for past and future violence. "In addition to demonizing particular minority groups, a vituperative culture of hate speech deeply impacts the nature of public and political life, contributing to a climate in which all minority groups, dissenters, and government critics are at risk. Hate speech that faces no consequences but is rather rewarded becomes a form of political capital, severely eroding the legitimacy of democratic institutions."
In India, hate speech manifests itself in multiple forms, including direct calls to violence, a social and economic boycott of religious minorities, and support and justification for violent cow vigilantism, where religious minorities, particularly Muslims, are targeted. The hatemongers also demand the exclusion of religious minorities from bureaucracy.


HATE SPEECH EVENTS BY CATEGORIES


Hate Speech Organizers
The VHP and the Bajrang Dal, according to the report, organized the most hate speech events, i.e., 216 in total or around 32 percent.  The VHP is a militant religious organization with a history of anti-minority violence, as is its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal. “Both organizations have taken part in some of the most horrific violent episodes in recent Indian history, including attacks against Christians in the late 1990s, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, and more recent cow vigilante lynching of marginalized groups,” according to the report. Both organizations are part of the RSS family, an umbrella term for several Hindu nationalist groups and consisting of dozens of organizations including the BJP, which serve as its political wing. The IHL report says that VHP and the Bajrang Dal provide the BJP with plausible deniability about its role in promoting hate speech. 


The Bajrang Dal held multiple ‘Trishula’ (a divine symbol/trident in Hinduism) distribution" events, in which participants were provided with sharp tridents." Approximately 93 speeches, or 14 percent, featured calls to arms.


Love Jihad
The report said that about 420, or 63 percent, of the 668 hate speech events included references to conspiracy theories. The primary conspiracy theories that were referenced by speakers included love jihad. The BJP has made ‘tackling’ love jihad a major part of its electoral platform, with senior leaders like Union Home Minister Amit Shah claiming that the Muslim population will overtake the Hindus in the country, it said. "Such speeches also tend to suggest that Muslims are nefariously working to establish an Islamic state in India, often implying that violence is the only way to prevent such an outcome in the future."


HATE SPEECH EVENTS BY CATEGORIES: BJP VS NON-BJP


False Claims
"During a December 11 speech delivered in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, Hindu religious leader Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati falsely claimed that Muslims were rapidly growing in number for the purpose of installing a Prime Minister of their religion in the near future. He asserted that all Hindus would be left with no choice but to convert, live abroad, or reside in refugee camps as a result.” This was just one of many examples of fear-mongering documented by IHL.
Even more concerning is the fact that in 239, or 36 percent of the recorded hate speech events, there were explicit calls of violence against Muslims, the report said.
Cow Vigilantism
The report says that cow vigilantism has also been utilized as a pretext for advocating violence against Muslims. According to a 2017 IndiaSpend report, 97 percent of cow vigilante attacks between 2010-17 were reported after May 2014, when Modi assumed power.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in 2019 revealed that at least 44 people, including 36 Muslims, were killed between May 2015 and December 2018 in such attacks. As Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW, stated in that report, "calls for cow protection may have started out as a way to attract Hindu votes, but it has transformed into a free pass for mobs to violently attack and kill minority group members."


A disturbing total of 87 events, or 13 percent, made calls to boycott the Muslim community. For instance, BJP legislator, T Raja Singh, repeatedly called for an economic boycott of Muslims.


Demands to Destroy Mosques
According to the report, speeches in 169, or 25 percent of the events alleged that Muslim places of worship were built after demolishing temples. The BJP and other far-right groups have made this a central point of their strategy since the 1990s when a violent campaign, led by the BJP and broader Sangh Parivar, culminated in the destruction of the Babri Mosque.
“These claims gained prominence in 2023 as the BJP government prepared to inaugurate a Hindu temple at the Babri mosque site in January 2024. The run-up to the massive inauguration, led by Modi himself, coincided with increased hate speech events targeting places of worship.”
The report pointed out that recently, the far-right leaders have expanded this demand, calling for the widespread conversion of mosques into temples.
According to the report:
▪  On January 21, VHP leader Ishwar Lal called for the conversion of 30,000 mosques into temples.
▪  On June 28, a Bajrang Dal leader went a step further, calling for the conversion of mosques to Bajrang Dal offices. 
▪ On September 29, Suresh Chavhanke, owner and chairman of far-right TV channel Sudarshan News, called for the replacement of 40,000 mosques with temples.  


TOP 5 SOURCES OF HATE SPEECH


Calls to Arms
The IHL report said that there were several calls to arms, where the far-right leaders exhorted Hindus to "arm" themselves or procure weapons, sometimes directly distributing tridents and swords for this purpose. “For instance, the Bajrang Dal held multiple ‘Trishula’ (a divine symbol/trident in Hinduism) distribution" events, in which participants were provided with sharp tridents." Approximately 93 speeches, or 14 percent, featured calls to arms.
Ostracization
Another concerning trend is the concerted efforts by far-right speakers to advocate for the ostracization of Muslims from various aspects of daily life, including social, economic, and political spheres.
A disturbing total of 87 events, or 13 percent, made calls to boycott the Muslim community. For instance, BJP legislator, T Raja Singh, repeatedly called for an economic boycott of Muslims. At the same time, the other far-right leaders sought to repeal constitutional rights to equality or called for the exclusion of Muslims from important state institutions, such as the bureaucracy or the police.
Among the BJP leaders, T. Raja Singh and Himanta Biswa Sarma, Chief Minister of the state of Assam, and Nitesh Rane, a BJP legislator from Maharashtra, were responsible for most hate speeches, the report revealed.
These speeches intend to imply that Muslims are "outsiders" or alien to India. Sarma often boasts about closing Muslim seminaries and demolishing Muslim properties. At a November 27-election rally in Ibrahimpatnam, Telangana, Sarma declared to the crowd that his party does not need the Muslim vote.
Hamas Attack Reaction
Out of 193 hate speech events held between October 7, the day Hamas attacked Israel and the beginning of Israel's war on Gaza, and December 31, at least 41, or 21 percent, events used this conflict to fuel fear and animosity towards Muslims in India. The use of the war to peddle anti-Muslim hate peaked in November, with 17 such events recorded by IHL.
Normalization of Hate Speech
The IHL said that the normalization of hate speech has been central to the Hindu far-right project of transforming India into a de facto Hindu nation. “A form of symbolic violence itself, it has also enabled physical violence, disenfranchisement, and destruction aimed at Indian Muslims as well as other Indian religious and caste minorities. Other targets of hate speech include critics of the state, political dissenters, and public figures critical of the Modi government.”
IHL predicted a sharp rise in hate speech during 2024 election year. However, the report said that the spread of hate speech in India’s public sphere is not confined to electoral politics anymore. “Hate speech is pervasive throughout Indian society, utilized not merely for political mobilization but also to effectively radicalize and indoctrinate the Hindu community against minority groups.”
“The relentless, almost everyday nature of hate speech has facilitated its banalization, making it part of the socio-political sphere in India. This serves to legitimize hate speech, making it a very dangerous trend that demands intervention from a broad range of actors to ensure accountability,” the report stressed.
The irony is that the world powers seem to have accepted and yielded to the idea of an intolerant, illiberal and majoritarian India. In doing this, they are ignoring all the threats the Hindutva juggernaut poses for regional peace as well as for the religious and ethnic minorities living within the confines of India's controversial and disputed frontiers.
Bharat, as the Hindutva leaders want their country to be known both literally and symbolically, has become an open prison for minorities, especially more than 200 million Muslims living in this country of around 1.3 billion people. Still, Bharat is seen as the strongest strategic ally of the U.S.led Western bloc, which ignores New Delhi's gross human rights abuses and violations mainly for two reasons: Liberal West's–read the United States'–rivalry with China and the vast Bharati market.
This underlines the harsh fact that statecraft is driven only by narrow state interests rather than any universal principles, which the West is so fond of paying lip service to in the name of democracy, freedom, and human rights. The reality, however, cannot be brushed aside.


The writer is an eminent journalist who regularly contributes for print and electronic media. 
E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @AmirZia1

 

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